Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Great Vintage Blues #17: Big Joe Williams

Illustration for article titled Great Vintage Blues #17: Big Joe Williams

Joe Lee "Big Joe" Williams did things his own way. Specializing in rough-edged, raw blues in the old-school Delta style, he was an important shaper of the 1950s Chicago electric blues sound without changing his own style very much along the way. His forceful, rugged way of playing and singing allowed him to compete with the extra amplification on his own terms, thus putting him in position to be influential on the roots-oriented folk-blues movement when the 1960s rolled around.

Like many other Delta bluesmen (though technically he wasn't from the Delta but from Crawford in eastern Mississippi), Williams drew heavily on the style of Charley Patton. But he achieved a unique sound by reinventing his instrument, modifying regular six-string guitars with extra tuners to make his own nine-string version, sometimes accompanying himself with a kazoo and a makeshift percussion instrument consisting of a pie plate and a beer can dangling from the neck of the guitar. (Something not nearly enough of our modern-day musicians do, in my opinion.)

Where other blues performers' careers were destroyed by the Depression, Williams did alright for himself, probably in no small part because he was living in big-city Chicago at the time. He recorded a string of hit records in Chicago in the 1930s, including the much-covered classics "Baby, Please Don't Go" and "Highway 49." He also hit the road frequently, hoboing and playing in small towns in any venue that would have him. He was also a talent scout and record producer, and worked in Chicago as a sideman for more prominent bluesmen like Sonny Boy Williamson and Robert Nighthawk.

Here's Williams in 1963, playing "Baby Please Don't Go," which has since been covered by dozens of artists, from AC/DC to Bob Dylan to Lightnin' Hopkins:

When the folk-blues boom hit, Williams counted among his followers a young Bob Dylan, who he played with on a two-week double bill as "Big Joe and Little Joe." He didn't shy away from writing topical material like "Death Of Martin Luther King" and "Army Man In Vietnam," and Marxist writer Lenni Brenner, who lived with Dylan briefly in those days, says that Dylan gave Williams credit for being the first person to tell Dylan to stop playing songs from the old folk catalog and write new ones that reflected his own life. (Though Brenner was the one who turned Dylan on to peyote and Marxism.) That's probably true, though stories about the Dylan/Williams connection aren't always reliable: Dylan claimed to have first met Williams on a trip to Chicago when he was 16, and Williams himself claimed the meeting happened when Dylan was six, and wandering the streets of Chicago by himself.

I don't really know that much about Big Joe, but he apparently had his difficult side: There are several references online to him having a "bizarre, cantankerous" personality, and the All Music Guide begins its bio with the memorable line "Big Joe Williams may have been the most cantankerous human being who ever walked the earth with guitar in hand." I haven't been able to find much more detail on his temper other than a reference to a short stint in prison and a vague, third-hand story that he apparently left Chicago for good after nearly killing another musician in a bar fight. Mike Bloomfield, a renowned guitarist with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, wrote a 44-page booklet called Me And Big Joe chronicling his travels with Williams, which looks fascinating. I haven't read it and probably won't be able to since it's out of print and used copies are currently going for $220, but here's a great excerpt which makes me wish someone would republish the thing:

The drive to St. Louis was real nice. Wonderful, in fact. Joe talked… about things that happened thirty years ago as though they'd happened that morning. He reminisced about Robert Johnson and Willie McTell and Blind Boy Fuller; he told how Sunnyland Slim had helped Muddy Waters get a record contract; he explained how Big Bill had gotten rich. Being with Joe was being with a history of the Blues - you could see him as a man, and you could see him as a legend. He couldn't read or write a word of English, but he had America memorized. From forty years of hiking roads and riding rails he was wise to every highway and byway in the country, and wise to every city and county and township that they led to. Joe was part of a rare and vanished breed - he was a wanderer and a hobo and a blues singer, and he was an awesome man.

…here was a man of stature. There was a great pride in this man, a great strength in this man. And there was poetry. He was a poet of the highways, and in the words of his songs he could sing to you his life. And to hear him talk about Robert Johnson or Son House or Charlie Patton, to hear life distilled from fifty years of thumbing rides and riding rails and playing joints - to hear of levees and work gangs and tent shows; of madams and whores, pimps and rounders, gamblers, bootleggers and roustabouts; of circuit-preachers and medicine-show men - well it was something. Because to know this man was to know the story of black America, and maybe to know the story of black America is to know America itself.

What can I can add to that? Let's move on to the video clips.

This performance of "Arkansas Woman" is preceded by an interview in which Williams talks about the women who inspired his songs, whether they liked it or not. Backing him on the bass is Willie Dixon, songwriter. I believe the clip is from an early 1960s British TV show called I Hear The Blues.

"Highway 49," which you might remember from Howlin' Wolf's take on it in GVB #4. I'm guessing this was recorded next to his trailer home in Crawford.

(Photo taken from Stefan Wirz's Williams discography page.


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